Federal takeover being considered at Rikers jail complex

Fifteen inmates died in custody last year.

April 26, 2022, 6:51 PM

After years of failed attempts to reform Rikers Island, a federal judge in Manhattan on Tuesday will consider whether to put New York City’s sprawling and troubled jail complex under control of the court.

Judge Laura Taylor Swain in 2014 appointed a federal monitor, but Rikers, part of the New York City Department of Correction, remains plagued by staffing problems, physical deterioration and violence. The court monitor, Steve Martin, said Tuesday that there is time to make changes to Rikers Island and gave the city three weeks to submit a plan to avert a federal takeover of the troubled jail.

More extreme measures may be necessary, Martin advised.

Anna Friedberg, Martin's deputy, cited multiple instances when legal barriers -- including city policies, existing contracts and union rules -- have stymied city reforms.

The city must cut that red tape immediately and take dramatic action, including hiring outside expertise, and must allow them to work from home, Friedberg said.

Friedberg also cited four areas of concern at Rikers: security, staffing, management of incarcerated people and accountability. The city has until 3 p.m. on May 17 to submit its plan, and a hearing will be held on May 24.

PHOTO: People walk by a sign at the entrance to Rikers Island, March 31, 2017, in New York.
People walk by a sign at the entrance to Rikers Island, March 31, 2017, in New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Prior to the judgment, the administration of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, in its own letter to the court, insisted it is making progress and asked for more time.

"The extraordinary measure of ordering a receivership is not merited and DOJ’s reference to it, less than four months into Commissioner Molina’s term, is unfair," said Kimberly Joyce of the New York City Law Department. "The commissioner has taken more far-reaching action than has previously been demonstrated."

A lawyer for the city said Tuesday that they are "in general agreement with the monitoring team" on changes. Part of that plan includes the hiring of 578 new correction officers, which the mayor revealed earlier Tuesday.

Fifteen inmates died in custody last year, and three have died so far in 2022. There were more than five dozen stabbings in March alone.

The U.S. Attorneys office admitted it is giving "serious consideration" to seeking federal receivership of New York City jails to address the "ongoing, daily constitutional injury to the inmates."

Damien Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, expressed alarm at the level of violence. He raised the possibility of federal receivership to force change.

"The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now," Williams said in a letter to the court. "Based on our experience over the last six years and the sustained non-compliance with key Consent Judgment provisions and the three subsequent Remedial Orders entered by this Court, our Office is very concerned about whether the Department and City have the ability, expertise, and will to swiftly make the changes necessary to bring true reform to this deeply troubled agency."

PHOTO: A general view shows the Rikers Island jail complex in the East River of New York, Jan. 13, 2022.
A general view shows the Rikers Island jail complex in the East River of New York, Jan. 13, 2022.
Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Swain has ordered Correction Commissioner Louis Molina to attend the hearing, marking the first time all the stakeholders will convene since the possibility of a federal takeover was raised.

Molina said reforms are already in the works, adding that he believes the former administration of Bill de Blasio was pursuing a "political argument" to close Rikers.

"I am in total agreement with the monitor's recommendations," Molina said. "My vision is to create a culture of discipline and service to those incarcerated."

The Legal Aid Society said in a statement Tuesday that the city has not yet demonstrated the "capacity to respond to this humanitarian crisis."

"The ongoing violence and harm that New Yorkers suffer on Rikers Island, and the demonstrated inability of the City to manage its jails safely and competently despite years of technical assistance from an expert monitoring team, cannot be solved through business as usual," the non-profit legal aid organization said. "... Independent leadership with authority and willingness to enact bold, swift change, such as may be obtained through receivership, is necessary to end this quagmire."

ABC News has previously documented the horror at Rikers. Exclusive material from Diane Sawyer’s project aired as a full episode of "Nightline."

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